It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Toxicity of Popularity

“She’s going to be a popular girl.”

Emma and I have been watching the children interact. I nod my head, and agree. “Yes, I’m afraid you could be right.”

In our household lexicon “popular girl” is not a compliment. It’s not something to aspire to. The “popular girls” are that clique of classroom ‘It’ girls, the ones who head the social pack. The predatory ones. The conscious-less ones.

We all know them. They have some quality that attracts followers, whom they use and abuse, entrance and discard, as the whim hits. For some reason, despite their manifold unpleasant traits, they attract the most attention; others desire their approval, aspire to their company.

Emma, still watching, comments. “She’s pretty, she has lots of nice clothes. She expects everyone to do what she says, and she’s rude and bossy with the other kids, it doesn’t bother her if she makes someone sad. She’ll be a ‘popular girl’, for sure.” I think other families call this kind of girl a “Heather”.

I remind Emma that this child is awfully young to be making those kinds of judgements. All sorts of things could happen between now and grade school.

Popularity is an odd thing. However it’s defined, it’s just not something I’ve ever wanted for my children. Popular kids are more likely to be oblivious to the emotional hurt they can inflict. How could it be that bad, when ‘everybody’ still wants to be their friend? And the power of a dismissive word or a sneer! Corrosive, that power. De-humanizing.

Popularity puts you at the mercy of the social currents. Your value is determined by others, by the concensus of the group. The group could turn on you, stripping you of your identity, leaving you alone. You have to stay on top. Who needs that kind of vulnerability? I’d far rather my kids be outside the popular core, I’d even rather they feel a little outcast and downcast at times, so long as their identity comes from within.

And of course, when your identity comes from within, you are far less vulnerable to the rejection of certain of your peers. You know your own value.

I wonder how this little miss will weather school. She already struggles hard to be the focus of all attention. She cannot enjoy a game unless she is being watched. She does not stick to a task without frequent praise. Well, she does now, but it’s the result of determined effort — on my part to wean her from the praise addiction, on her part to force it from me for every hiccup and blink. She wasn’t happy with me for a while, but now she knows, I hope, that occasional praise which is truly earned is worth more than a stream of patronizing fake-praise for non-accomplishments.

All toddlers thrive on attention, of course, but her need for attention goes well beyond what is standard for the age.

Someone whe needs the attention of others to take satisfaction in her achievements will never do anything for her own satisfaction. Someone who needs the focus of others’ eyes to make her real in her own mind has no reality when no one watches. Imagine the vulnerability, the fragility, of self-esteem based on others’ attention and approval.

Every day in a dozen small ways, I try to wean her from her craving for eyes upon her, to teach her that she is, even without the focus and adulation of the masses, that satisfaction can come from bringing happiness to someone else. I try to pass these principles and goals on to her parents. I hope I am successful. I hope, for her sake, smart and pretty and stylish though she may be, that she’s never a ‘popular girl’.

January 17, 2008 - Posted by | individuality, my kids, parenting, peer pressure


  1. I remember the movie Heathers very well.

    I hope she doesn’t become one.

    Comment by Granny | January 17, 2008 | Reply

  2. The only thing worse than one of those kids is a group of 3 or 4 of them. The power they have to make every other little girl’s life a living hell is incredible. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Retired Day Care Director | January 17, 2008 | Reply

  3. I think they’re called “mean girls” now, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to affect their popularity. I’ve never really understood how people who aren’t particularly *likable* can be *popular*, and I’m glad to be of an age where it matters much less. I’m also glad my middle-schooler understands the difference.

    Comment by Florinda | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  4. my little one is in preschool now and she’s already said that the other girls won’t let her play with them. and she’s said to me, “guess what? i got to be in Girl Club today because (another girl) was absent.” it’s like a knife through my heart! who knew that cliques and such began at four years old!!!

    Comment by Dana | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  5. There are 3 girls like that already blooming at my old day care. Ally is very sensitive, and would often tell me that thye hurt her feelings. When we started having problems with the day care, we moved the kids to another one. The new day care has an over-abundance of boys. I was thrilled. For some reason, the “Heather” quality isn’t found as often in boys.

    Comment by ktjrdn | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  6. I seldom disagree with your posts but this one struck me as a little harsh and revealed more about you and your daughter than the little girl in question. It’s fine to criticize the little girl’s behaviour, but to put her down for being pretty and well-dressed? As a preschooler, those qualities hardly seem to be under her control, and what’s wrong with being pretty and well-dressed in and of themselves? Would you find a cute and well-dressed boy as problematic?

    I absolutely agree that “popular” girls who put others down to make themselves feel bigger are to be heartily discouraged, and I understand that it’s those very qualities that you’re not liking in this particular child. However, I do think that is possible to be popular for good reasons: because you are fun to be around, a nice person, etc. Isn’t it possible to hope that our kids will have lots of friends for the right reasons?

    Comment by Lucy | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  7. I agree that popularity is not something I wish for my children. I hope for them to be themselves. With luck, a little less withdrawn than I am and possibly a bit less outgoing than their father. 🙂 I just want them to always be consious of how their words and actions can affect others.
    And besides, I was a “loser” in high school and I’m pretty proud of how I’ve made my life.

    Comment by Dani | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  8. I just watched Mean Girls last night, which is a remake of Heathers (minus the school being blown to bits). I’ve always had disdain for “popular people”, but I love how you can put into to words all the reasons why. Thank you for helping me to realize why I enjoy the fact that I was never one of them!

    Comment by Redhead Mommy | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  9. Heather’s, Mean Girls or Popular…the sentiment is the same.

    And from my personal experience with my son, that kind of vacuous drama is no longer solely the girls’ domain.

    It’s just all about who’s cool and who isn’t…and as far as I can tell there are no clearer definitions now than when I was in school.

    What is obvious though, is that our culture still puts way too much value on appearances. Substance has become (or maybe it always was)secondary to just looking good.

    What I always found ironic about school was that in a supposed “environment of learning”, the kids who actually care about their studies end up being the ones who are ostricized the most.

    I’m all for popularity because you’re a great person to be around but being popular for it’s own sake and hurting others just to keep up appearances is most definetly toxic.

    Comment by Sheri | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  10. Granny: Me, too.

    RDCD: Thank you. I will try.

    Florinda: I’ve never really understood how people who aren’t particularly *likable* can be *popular*. It’s one of life mysteries. I’ve mused on this quite a bit over the years, but no satisfactory answer has emerged.

    Dana: Sad, isn’t it? They can and they do, and how do you protect one so very young? It’s a tough one.

    ktjdrn: No, it’s not. I think boys are more direct. Bullying does happen, of course, but it’s of a different style – and, usually, more obvious and thus easier to deal with. (Not easy, just easier!)

    Lucy: Would I find a cute and well-dressed boy’s clothing problematic? Yes, if the clothes fit a pattern that tended to go with the negative behaviours that concerned me. Boys have their external ranking markers, too.

    Point taken that the child has no final say over her clothing, though I gather she mostly does choose her own clothes (at home and in the store). No, there is nothing wrong with being well dressed per se. As I’ve written before, Emma is quite the little fashionista herself, and spends a percetage of most of the money she makes on clothes — but she doesn’t use her nice clothes as a weapon against others.

    This child isn’t doing that yet, either, of course. But will she? She does display certain worrisome traits that indicate the potential for such behaviour is there. I am only hoping that she doesn’t end up doing so.

    It is possible to hope your child can have lots of friends for the right reasons, if the child wants that. Not everyone does, of course. It does seem to me, however, that ‘nasty-popular’ girls are far more common than ‘nice-popular’ ones. As you say, having lots of friends because you draw people to you by the positivity of your character is a good thing; being popular because you can shred your rivals/opponants is not. My focus was on the latter.

    The good kind of popularity is not something a person strives for, but something that evolves, because they’re just so nice to be around. As soon as you strive for it, you’re doing it out of weakness and need, and that’s never a good thing.

    Dani: If high school is the happiest time of your life, you’ve nowhere to go but down from there on in… Most of the people I know generally hated high school, and almost all of them because of social stuff. High school is tough.

    Redhead Mommy: Thank you. While it may not be fun at the time to know you’re unpopular and to suffer at the hands of the popular, it’s always better for you to take your satisfaction from who you are, rather than what others think of you.

    Sheri: I think substance has always been secondary. Many of us were mocked in high school for wearing the “wrong” brand of jeans, or enjoying the “wrong” kind of music. In fact, I think the range of “right” music and clothing is broader now than when I was in high school — but there are still pretty rigid codes out there.

    I like the latter kind of popular child — too bad they seem to be the minority!

    Comment by MaryP | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  11. Hail, Mary! Yes, I’ve never gotten that whole need to be part of the group – I always preferred one or two good friends – really good friends, the kind I carried all the way into adulthood. I hope pumpkinpie will not have that desire to play into the power politics of little girls, either. We’ve already had the “not my friend’ battles, and so one… It only keeps on from here. sigh.

    Comment by kittenpie | January 18, 2008 | Reply

  12. Lordy-lordy…. we talk about this subject A LOT at our house. It is so easy right now (3.5 yr old by and 1.5 yr old girl) but I know my day is coming…. We aim for quirky and fun and polite…. but popular makes me shudder….

    Comment by K @ the Homestead | January 25, 2008 | Reply

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